Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Helm's Refutation of Christian Hedonism

I recall a few years ago, Richard Mouw argued against Christian Hedonism (CH). However, in my opinion he failed to really understand what Piper was saying (he got hung up on the unfortunate name). When I saw that Paul Helm addressed CH in his latest blog post, I wondered if he would fall into the same error as Mouw. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. Helm appears to at least understand the subject and has some very fascinating thoughts on the subject.

CH (as popularized by John Piper) teaches that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." Put another way, Piper rearranges the Westminster Shorter Catechism's first answer by saying that "the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever." This means that everything we do must be done with reference to God and result in human enjoyment of Him and not the thing being enjoyed for its own sake.

One of Paul Helm's biggest complaints is that the language of the WSC is meant to have an eschatalogical character, and the eschatological character of the answer is lost in Piper's paraphrase. Here is what Helm says, with reference to the WSC:
The chief end of man does not refer to the gain in satisfaction that each of our actions may provide as we perform them, but it has a distinctive eschatological strand to it. The chief end of man (here and now) is to glorify God and (at the last, when experiencing the vision of God) to enjoy him for ever. Here and now human life is to be dominated by glorifying God by what we think and do and feel, and endure, whatever the pain. Then, the Christian’s pilgrimage over, the faithful Christian will enjoy God when he shall be like him, seeing him as he is. It seems that Christian hedonism takes these two elements, the present Christian life and the life to come, and collapses them together.
Helm then argues that making the enjoyment of God the end of every action is not a fair characterization of how humanity is meant to glorify God.
And of course such glorifying of God is the ‘chief end’, not the only end. It provides a place not only subordinating what we do to God’s glory, but also for enjoyment, including the enjoyment of creaturely gifts for their own sake.
So that becomes the question then, doesn't it? Is it possible that something can be done for its own sake, without any direct reference to God and yet still bring Him glory? I am certain that Piper would say no to this. He does argue that "not only is disinterested morality (doing good "for its own sake") impossible; it is undesirable." However, Helm would probably affirm this. Helm is talking about things that do not have a moral dimension - such as collecting opera records. Piper would argue, however, that everything has a moral dimension. If something is done without reference to God, then it is immoral because it is a form of idolatry. Says Helm:
May we not find satisfaction in God in such innocencies as opera programme collecting? May he not be glorified in them? May God not be glorified for the provision of such innocent pleasures? A Christian hedonism may perhaps reply ‘Yes’. But if so then the link between satisfaction in God and glorifying him becomes more and more tenuous, and the claim runs the risk of being true by definition. Either the actions that express Christian liberty are ways of finding satisfaction in God, or they are not. If they are not, then Christian hedonism is at once refuted. If they are, then the idea of it is stretched, perhaps stretched to the breaking point of unreality, for then almost any action might count as one in which a person finds satisfaction in God.
At one point, Helm calls attention to a selection from his book Calvin at the Centre where he discusses Calvin vs. Augustine on uti and frui (use and love). In that book, he quotes Calvin (Institutes III.10.2) on the subject of the enjoyment of things:
Now then, if we consider for what end he created food, we shall find that he consulted not only for our necessity, but also for our enjoyment and delight. Thus in clothing, the end was, in addition to necessity, comeliness and honour; and in herbs, fruits and trees besides their various uses, gracefulness of appearance and sweetness of smell ... The natural qualities of things themselves demonstrate to what end, and how far, they may be lawfully enjoyed. Has the Lord adorned flowers with all the beauty which spontaneously presents itself to the eye, and the sweet odour which delights the sense of smell, and shall it be unlawful for us to enjoy that beauty and this odour?What? Has he not so distinguished colours as to make some more agreeable than others? Has he not given qualities to gold and silver, ivory and marble, thereby rendering them precious things above other metals and stones? In short, has he not given many things a value without having any necessary use?
With regard to the eschatological character of the first question of the Shorter Catechism, I think Helm is right. In which case, the WSC does not, on a de novo reading, offer prima facie support for CH. The question comes down to whether or not something in the bounds of Christian liberty can be enjoyed for its own sake, without direct reference to God. If so (and let me be clear, only if so), then I would agree with Helm that Christian Hedonism is indeed shown to be a somewhat inadequate expression of Christian experience.


  1. "All things have been created through Him and for Him." Colossians tells us this. In fact, the whole section beginning in chapter 1, verse 15 that extend to verse 20, serves as a statement to place Jesus rightfully above everything. The language used doesn't allow us to omit anything - except sin, obviously which he conquered through the Cross (v. 20). There is nothing in this world that we can enjoy for its own sake without reference to God, whether directly or indirectly.

    I think to use theology in the way Helm does to argue against a concept that encourages believers to define pleasure through Christ represents a problematic inclination of academics in the Christian faith. While rigorous study of the Bible is necessary and should be use to sharpen and correct doctrinal understanding, in today's Christian community it's often used for the sake of argument a bit too frequently.

    I think before framing a theological argument, it's important to consider what you're arguing against. Does it compromise the Gospel? Does it exalt itself above God? Does undermine the essential doctrines of human sin and the need for salvation? If we answer no to these questions, I think it would be prudent to question whether that argument is necessary. If there is a burning need to make a statement, it might be best to consider how best to present ideas humbly and without an agenda.

    There are plenty of things I have views on that aren't necessarily true of all believers, however, I am sure to make sure these views only relate to secondary and tertiary doctrines of the faith and not those things that are essential. It seems as if Mouw and Helm are focused on undermining John Piper, as opposed to voicing their interpretation of the WSC.

  2. Whether Christian Hedonism is biblically accurate or not is surely not a question of an interpretation of the WSC or even whether the word "hedonism" is misused by Piper. Surely Christian Hedonism as a recent doctrinal invention stands or falls on the merits of core commandment: The pursuit of pleasure in God is a believer's greatest commandment and highest goal.

    And there it is. Christian Hedonism stands or wilts under the scrutiny of Scripture on the basis of whether any New Testament command can be identified which demands Christ's believers to pursue pleasure in God as their highest order.

    "Since Christian Hedonism is a call to use 'all our strength' in devotion to pleasure in God as our highest calling, and since it has no mandate from the Scriptures to issue this call, the philosophy is fully and wholly without meaning or substance, not merely the name of the philosophy, but the entirety of its content. Even more so is it without meaning given that pleasure in God can be found through our senses as we behold His creation; through our mind as we contemplate Him, His works, and His creation; and in our spirits as we are made aware that we have been regenerated by His Spirit.
    Pleasure is not to be pursued. Pleasure is an experiential gift from God which He offers to us in all good things. As silly, arrogant, and greedy children might, we could demand more gifts of pleasure from God our Father, but we are not so commanded by His Word. In fact, we are often told to stop thinking of ourselves first, our comforts over those of our neighbors, and our selfishness. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and foremost of all that we do, pursue love for God." (quote from C.W.Booth, http://thefaithfulword.org/chfaqspage3.html#Qfinal)



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